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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on several busts clinging to the edge of life on the balcony, looking down on us. This week the focus is on William Wordsworth. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Bust of Wordsworth in the Octagon

Bust of Wordsworth by Francis Verheyden commissioned by the People's Palace c. 1888.

His Early Life

William Wordsworth was born on 7 April 1770 at Cockermouth in Cumbria, the second of five children born to John Wordsworth and Ann Cookson. By the time William was 15 both his parents had died. He and his 4 siblings were bought up by relatives; William was very close to his poet and diarist sister Dorothy Wordsworth.

From a very early age he began to develop a love for the beauty of nature, and the wild countryside which was later reflected in many of his poems. Wordsworth did tentatively attempt to write poetry while he was at school, but none was published until 1793. He entered St John's College, Cambridge where he received his BA degree in 1791. During this period he wrote his first sonnet and was published in The European Magazine marking his debut as a writer. In his summer holidays while at Cambridge he went to Switzerland, France and Italy along the Alps hill walking visiting places famous for the beauty of their landscape.

Relationship with Annette Vallon

While Wordsworth was visiting France in November 1791, he became very interested Napoleon Bonaparte and the Republican movement in Revolutionary France. During this visit he met a French woman, Annette Vallon, and fell in love. In 1792, Annette gave birth to their daughter Caroline.

In 1795 a generous relative left a legacy for William, and he and his sister Dorothy went to live in Dorset. Two years later they moved again, this time to Somerset, to live near his friend, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

First publication and Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth and Coleridge worked together on a collection Lyrical Ballads which was mainly Wordsworth poems. One of Wordsworth's most famous poems, "Tintern Abbey", was published in this collection.  Coleridge contributed one of his "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Thus marked the beginning of the Romantic period in English poetry according to some. However, the poems received a hostile response from the critics of the day.

Germany and move to the Lake District

In 1798 as autumn arrived, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, along with Coleridge, travelled through Germany and stayed in Gosler. William found he began to feel homesick and, despite the stress and loneliness, started to work on the autobiographical piece that was later titled The Prelude, including "The Lucy poems".

In the autumn of 1799 after the visit to Germany with Coleridge, Wordsworth visited the Hutchinson family at Sockburn. When Coleridge arrived back in England, he travelled to the North with their publisher Joseph Cottle to meet Wordsworth and undertake a proposed tour of the Lake District. This was a great success as both brother and sister fell in love with idyllic setting of the open countryside. So, William and Dorothy bought and moved into Dove Cottage in Grasmere, Lake District. Another poet and friend of theirs Robert Southey, lived nearby. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey came to be known as the “Lake Poets”. Wordsworth's most famous poem, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" was written at Dove Cottage in 1804. 

Marriage and children

In 1802, Wordsworth married his childhood sweetheart Mary Hutchinson. The next few years were personally difficult for Wordsworth. Throughout this period many of Wordsworth's poems revolved around themes of death, endurance, separation and grief. Two of his children died, his brother was drowned at sea and Dorothy suffered a mental breakdown. By the turn of the century his political views had changed and became more conservative. With the events in France and Napoleon Bonaparte taking power he became very disillusioned.

Laureateship and other honours

Wordsworth received many honorary degrees from Durham and Oxford Universities. Wordsworth appreciated the praise that John Keble laid upon him, the “poet of Humility.” In 1842, the government awarded him a Civil List pension of £300 a year.  Then in 1843 Wordsworth succeeded his very good friend Robert Southey as Poet Laureate. He initially refused the honour, saying that he was too old, but accepted when the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, assured him that "you shall have nothing required of you".

His Death

Wordsworth remained a formidable presence in his later years. In 1837, the Scottish poet and playwright Joanna Baillie reflected on her long acquaintance with Wordsworth:

He looks like a man that one must not speak to unless one has some sensible thing to say. However he does occasionally converse cheerfully & well; and when one knows how benevolent & excellent he is, it disposes one to be very much pleased with him.

William’s health took a turn for the worse when an aggravated case of pleurisy took hold of him. He died at his home at Rydal Mount, on 23 April 1850. He is buried at St Oswald Church Grasmere.

His Legacy

Title page of A primer of Wordsworth ; with a critical essay by Laurie Magnus 1897

His great autobiographical poem, The Prelude which he had worked on since 1798, was published in full after his death. Though it failed to interest people at the time, it has since come to be widely recognised as his masterpiece. All his poetry was inspired by an absorbing love of nature, written amongst the lakes and mountains where he spent most of his life. His Lyrical Ballads of 1798 was a landmark in the development of a new style of English poetry, while The Prelude contains much autobiographical material.



A Primer of Wordsworth Laurie Magnus 1897 from our rare books collections [Ref. PR5881.A5 MAG]

My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; so is it now I am a man;

Looking at it more closely, the poet is saying that people should maintain their sense of childlike wonder well into adulthood and old age. He is saying that nature, symbolized by the rainbow, for him will always be divine, and he thinks it should be for everyone.

Every Friday our Special Collections librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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